Come for lunch!

Come to the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington to hear me and Dr. Kristen Brill discuss our current research projects on classical memory and Confederate loyalties in the MVLA! 


Bending Path

On the face of it, graduate studies can seem a simple process. Somewhere on your school’s online student suite, there will be a helpful list of requirements to fulfill:

  • Enroll in 12 units per semester for full time status
  • submit master’s essay
  • Apply for co-terminal masters degree upon completion of 48 units of coursework
  • Submit written comprehensive exams
  • Pass oral comprehensive exam
  • Submit dissertation to committee
  • Oral defense of dissertation
  • Upload dissertation
  • Apply for Ph.D upon completion of 120 units or more

Sure, there are a few more steps, but these are the main outlines. Seems simple enough, right? A nice, straight path all lined out. If only.

The first 5 steps were simple enough – if an exhausting amount of work. But it is that step 6, that “submit dissertation to committee” that is when the path becomes remarkably twisty and often hidden by a seemingly impenetrable fog. After all, I must write the dissertation before I can submit it.

When I first submitted my dissertation prospectus proposing to study presidential memorial services between 1799 and 1865, I knew I could not possibly cover all the presidents and materials in that period. Absolutely no way. But I couldn’t find a thread, a theme, an explanation that would narrow my proposal. The first people to read my prospectus reacted in an entirely predictable way – by making suggestions of everything else that could also be included in my book. I wasn’t upset (okay, too upset). I sometimes do the same thing, intentionally or by accident. We all have ideas about how we would write someone else’s book. Fortunately, my advisor saved me and made a suggestion that turned my dissertation, which had previously resembled something akin to hiking every mountain in the Himalayas, into a climb up Pike’s Peak. Difficult and challenging, yes, potentially still deadly, yes. But also possible.

Instead of examining the memorials for the first sixteen or so United States presidents, my dissertation will be examining just four presidents, all of whom were also the most famous military generals of the United States’ earliest martial conflicts: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, and Ulysses S. Grant. Taking off several presidents but including Grant had the additional benefit of extending my temporal frame to encompass almost a full century of historical development, from George Washington’s first memorial services in 1799 to Grant’s in 1885. These changes made such a huge difference in my morale, and I am now excited at the prospect of fourth year.

Having now tackled the first step of writing a dissertation- what are the subjects about which you will write – I’m now well on my way through the second step: collecting the materials. During two months of travel this summer, I spent three weeks at the wonderful Ulysses S Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State University in Starkville. (A huge shoutout to their archivist Ryan Semmes and their graduate assistants for finding material and keeping up with me!) Although I didn’t have time to catalog, read, and write about the material, I left with over five hundred sources to use for my chapter on U.S. Grant. With this much material already, I’ll probably write a whole book on him in the future. Next up is six months in residence at George Washington’s Mt. Vernon and then a month in New York City. I also plan to swing through archives in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Washington D.C. over the next year. Onwards through dissertation step two!



On This Day: Ulysses S. Grant dies at Mt. McGregor, NY

On this day July 23, 1885, Ulysses S. Grant, a two-term president of the United States, Lieutenant General of the Union armies, world traveler, author, and Wall Street victim died at Mt. McGregor, New York. Instantly newspapers around the country lamented his death, and August 8, 1885 was decided as the date of his funeral and declared a national day of mourning.
For months, U.S. citizens had been anxiously following news of Grant’s battle with throat cancer and his race to finish his memoirs before his death. Numerous people around the country had sent well wishes and poems honoring Grant to his family. Every slight sign of improvement in his health was taken as a hopeful and even sure sign of his recovery. One overconfident composer even wrote a song celebrating Grant’s return to health. But the months of updates made it clear that Grant was slowly dying. 

Upon first hearing his diagnosis, Grant knew he was going to die. Over the next months, he tried to conceal the depth of his increasing pain from his family, often spending the nights pacing in agony only to tell his family the next morning he had slept well. In the last months of his life, Grant could not eat, drink, or talk without experiencing extreme pain. He had difficulty breathing and swallowing, so spent his nights and days sitting up in with his legs up on a second chair to prevent suffocation. He communicated through notes. He wrote his memoirs, hoping to secure his family’s financial security through its royalty check while worrying constantly that he would not succeed. He finished them and died four days later. 

The nation and the world let loose a maelstrom of grief. Memorial services were held not only in the United States but also in Mexico and Westminster Abbey in London. His funeral in New York City was the largest funeral in nineteenth century United States history with a procession stretching seven miles. Every year after, further memorial events were held on the anniversary of his birth and death and on Memorial Day. On April 27, 1897, Grant’s tomb in Riverside Park, New York City was dedicated in front of one million spectators and dignitaries from around the world. Modeled on the Mausoleum of Halincarnassus, the tomb was 150 feet tall and cost over $600,000 (at 1885 rates) to build, making it the most expensive publicly funded memorial of its time and still the largest mausoleum in the United States.

The depth of love and sorrow for Grant makes little sense to us today. If Americans even know who Grant is, they most often consider him a drunkard, a butcher, an anti-Semite, and, at best, an incompetent politician and investor if not an outright corrupt one. And like any part of memory and legend, there is some fire to this smoke. In most cases, these were actions Grant deeply regretted.

But we have forgotten the traits that made individuals around the world in 1885 love Grant. He did not desire war and constantly affirmed his statements that the Mexican American War was an unjust, unnecessary war for empire. Yes, he fought, but he fought to restore the Union and tried to restore the peace by providing amicable terms of surrender. As president he sought to reconcile the North and South while also protecting the rights and citizenship of newly-freed African Americans. As president and a world traveler, he promoted arbitration instead of war to resolve international conflict. He treated individuals with respect and deeply loved his family. He was far from perfect, but he regretted his errors and tried to correct them and to do what was right. He was continually knocked down only to pick himself up. To his contemporaries, these traits made Grant a hero, a member of a great American triumvirate along with Washington and Lincoln. Perhaps we should try harder to remember all of Ulysses S. Grant.

On This Day: July 19, 1885

It is believed that Ulysses S. Grant finished writing his famous Memoirs on July 19, 1885. Grant was desperately racing against the clock as he battled throat cancer and tried to complete his manuscript, which would provide financial security for his family. He died a mere four days later.

Gremlins in machina

We’ve probably all seen the film with the cute but remarkably troublesome Gremlins in it. We’ve probably also heard the phrase “gremlins in the machine.” Well, there is nothing cute or funny about having gremlins hit your tech while on a research trip. I know because it just happened to me.

Technology has revolutionized the humanities just like it has other fields. Heck, widespread access to digital databases means you can go years before stepping into a physical archive for the first time. And when you do go to the archive, cameras and computers can greatly increase your productivity and the amount of material you can collect and organize. But technology can and does break down. Below is my developing list of archive tech and suggestions for surviving a crash.

Ensure redundancy

  • Make sure all devices are up to date on security and system updates. But be careful if you have a Windows 10 OS running on a third party device, as sometimes Windows doesn’t play well with other companies’ hardware. The recent Creators Update messed up the drivers in both my and my brother’s Lenovo laptops, making it impossible to power up our machines.
  • Before leaving on each trip, make a full system backup of all devices and store them to an external drive (maybe two) in case you have to rebuild your devices. Consider bringing one copy of recovery file with you, particularly if traveling for a while. I wish I had this one with me right now.
  • Make general copies (these are not the same as official recovery files) of all your most important files to an external drive and, except for financial or sensitive data, to a cloud based storage like Google Drive, Box, or Dropbox. I also do a lot of my work in cloud based apps like Evernote. Just remember that nothing in the Cloud is completely secure, so don’t put up passwords.
  • Consider also bringing backups of key items, like that conference paper you are presenting, on portable storage like USBs or SD cards. Also email copies to yourself.
  • If you are using computers and cameras to collect research, bring along overlapping technology such as your main laptop, a smaller tablet or 2 in 1, a cell phone, and a real camera. ¬†On my current trip, my main laptop stopped. Fortunately I just happened to have a small 2 in 1 tablet running an earlier OS with me, and this is has saved me.
  • Go old school. Pens, paper, and notecards can’t break down. If everything else fails, go back to the analog world.

Bring appropriate gear to support devices. There is a surprising amount of gear needed to make technology work (which is why going analog can be easier).

  • For your computer: power cord, case, possibly a wireless mouse, USB cable, ethernet cable, HDMI cable, extra USB
  • For your tablet or 2 in 1: tablet, keyboard, stylus, case, all of the above items for a computer, plus the necessary converters like micro USB to full USB adapters, or mini display port to HDMI adapters, mini or micro SD readers, USB hub.
  • Cell phone: charger and cable, protective case and screen cover, Earphones or headphones, car charger, charging brick, AUX cable (to plug into car speakers if driving your own or a rental car and using GPS on phone), micro SD reader, ejector tool (for getting out your internal SD card and copying off images. If you don’t have the tool, use a small gauge paperclip).
  • Camera: protective case, any additional lenses and filters, extra batteries, battery charger, extra SD cards, file transfer cable, SD card reader.

Be prepared. Additional items that maybe helpful or useful:

  • Portable wand scanner. I’m eyeing these to prevent my rapidly worsening carpal tunnel syndrome after taking pictures on my phone so much.
  • Bluetooth earpiece. Useful if you need your hands free.
  • Precision screwdrivers, in case you have to open your laptop and perform your own repairs.
  • Paperclips

These are my current suggestions. Let me know any of your tech suggestions for handling research trips in the comments and check in to see any updates.

On the Road

Topsy turvy. That definitely is the prevailing theme for my summer. Every time I get a plan in place, something happens to send me scurrying for a new plan – that might send me 500 miles in the other direction.

20170610_094132.jpgThis is the summer before my fourth year of Ph.D study, which means I will be running around the country to any archives I can find before settling into my residency at Mt. Vernon this fall. Last summer I was still holed up in my apartment cramming for comps, so this is my first, true archival summer. And it is definitely going to be an adventure.

Today I drove from central Virginia to Ohio. It was about 530 miles and took me about 8 hours. I’ve done this particular route about 4 times a year for the last few years, and it’s proved I can be a real road warrior. Don’t stop — that’s the key. And I only almost died about three times this trip thanks to other cars swerving into to me, which adds just the right rush of adrenaline to keep you awake for another hour. From Ohio, I’m going to California, then back to Ohio. From there, I’ll be working my way south to Mississippi. And who knows where I’m going from there. One thing is for certain, I’ll be racking up the miles, and hopefully, stupendous materials to flush out my diss.

So stay tuned for highlights from a Ph.D student’s version on the Great American Road Trip.

Ex Libre: The Toki Onqoy Revival and ISIS

While reading and preparing for discussion sections this week, I was struck by this explanation of “revolutionary millenarianism” in Steve J. Stern’s Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640 (2nd edition 1993):

The ideological core of “revolutionary millenarianism” — then and now, in the Andes and elsewhere — has been the desperate vision of an imminent, totally comprehensive transformation which, by the power of supernatural forces and the insurgents’ own moral purification, will soon destroy an evil social order and regenerate a new, perfect world in its place. Historically, such movements have appealed to sharply disaffected social groups who experience a profound crisis of confidence. They not only find it difficult or impractical to launch a more direct political or military assault against the sources of their discontent, but have also lost confidence in the moral integrity of their own lives. The mixture of radical disaffection, political impotence, and inner doubts imparts to such crises an especially spiritual or moral character, even though the discontent stems from socioeconomic processes. (67)

I was startled at how similar Stern’s explanation of the forces at work in the Toki Onqoy Revival – a spiritual revival among indigenous Andean peoples in the 16th century – matched some of the explanations that have emerged for today’s ISIS, except that easy access to modern weaponry has added “military assault” to the equation. The fact that this explanation appears in a history book whose first edition appeared in 1982 and whose current, 2nd edition, appeared in 1993, over a decade before ISIS became widely known, makes me more convinced then ever of the need for historical education in order to understand and hopefully resolve contemporary developments. We might think that ISIS is some phenomenon never before seen in history, but Stern’s explanation of the Toki Onqoy Revival show this thinking is not entirely true. Particular circumstances and causes might be different for ISIS, but the underlying logic of human behavior is similar to other historical revivals.

Benchmark Achieved!

I know, I’ve been gone a long time. But I am pleased to announce that I passed my comprehensive exams and am now officially a Ph.D student at the University of Virginia! I am now moving on to presenting my dissertation prospectus, locating archives and grants, outlining dissertation chapters, and all the other aspects of working towards a Ph.D that I’ve never experienced before. I must admit, this comparatively free-form manner of study is a bit overwhelming with its manifold possibilities, but I am sure to find my feet and direction in due time. Onwards!

From the Stacks: Vampires?

From the stacks-spookyWell, of course there are vampires in the stacks – they’re called grad students! But this time it is a book titled Vampires of New York (1831) by Clement Robbins. That would make any bored researcher sit up! Turns out it is a volume describing popular gambling card games and the gambling halls in New York in the early 1830s, presumably so that young men and law enforcement will know how to identify and shut down these sinful activities that suck the souls out of American youth. Nefarious!! Available on Hathitrust